Couple on the road for clean water in Haiti

Chris and Leslie Rolling in Vancouver to raise money for their nonprofit, which provides low-tech water filters

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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HOW TO HELP

• Online: cleanwaterforhaiti.org.

• Mail donations to Clean Water for Haiti, P.O. Box 871181, Vancouver, WA 98687.

In their mission to bring clean water to Haiti, Chris and Leslie Rolling rely on modern tools, but they also encounter technology the Romans would have recognized, like concrete, tile and donkeys .

And in some ways, Haiti is still trying to catch up with the Roman Empire.

"The Romans had plumbing," Chris Rolling said. "The Romans had aqueducts. Haiti is not there yet."

That's why the former Vancouver resident and his wife are leading Clean Water for Haiti, a nonprofit that provides low-tech filters for people on the impoverished Caribbean nation.

Most Haitians get their drinking water from dirty ditches, muddy canals, shallow wells and contaminated streams, he said.

The process of hauling water can add to the problem, like in a mountain region where the agency has recently extended its work. Although it's in hill country, "the water is disgusting," Rolling said.

"People load water jugs on their donkey. The donkey is thirsty and drinks from the same source. And then it poops and pees in the water," Rolling said.

Rolling, a 1993 Hudson's Bay High School graduate, is in Vancouver for a few days as he adds fundraising to his duties as executive director.

"I'm amazed I have gotten away without having to fundraise," he said. "I need to learn how."

In addition to supporting ongoing building and distribution of water filters, the Rollings are working to develop a new home. At their current Pierre Payen site, Clean Water for Haiti is a major crime target, Rolling said. After losing $20,000 worth of equipment to theft and damage, they hired a security company in 2009.

"That's $1,000 a month," he said.

Those dollars diverted to crime and guards with shotguns could have funded 1,700 water filters, Rolling said.

There's nothing fancy about the filters. They're built with 160-pound concrete boxes filled with 90 pounds of sand; they add a biological agent that can trap 95 to 100 percent of the disease-causing microbes. A filter can clean about 5 gallons of water in an hour. It costs about $70 to make a filter, but a Haitian family has to pay only $5 for one.

The adoption rate is about 95 percent for the 19,000 filters installed since 2001.

The new site at Camp Mary, which would cost an estimated $200,000, would enable them to double production.

The effort has been blessed with some unexpected resources in the bid to build — of all things — a driveway. It's a serious issue, Rolling said. During the rainy season, trucks loaded with filters can get bogged in the mud. They have to remove the load and extricate the truck before they can even get the filters out of their own shop yard.

When Rolling priced paving tiles, he saw they were 65 cents apiece: "I didn't want to spend $5,000 on them."

Then Rolling visited friends in Gonaïves and found piles of them. The tiles had been removed to build a new road surface.

"People had stacks of them in their yards and were selling them for 8 cents each," Rolling said.

In her blog, Leslie Rolling calls 2014 "a year of turning."

Leslie, who shares the executive director job, describes the process as "slow and calculated. We've taken the time to pray and check ourselves. To wait for things to be right and be done right."

Tom Vogt: 360-735-4558; www.twitter.com/col_history;tom.vogt@columbian.com.